Learning to walk before you run… shooting the Aurora Borealis
I’m an early riser. Maybe that’s part of getting older? When I was in high school I could easily sleep past noon. Staying up was easy to. Getting up early was difficult. All that has changed.
Even without an alarm clock I find myself rising just after 6:00 am. That means that my head us usually on my pillow just after 10.00pm
Last night as I checked my email before bed time I saw the second alert of the evening. The first just after 9:00 pm was a yellow Aurora Watch alert. An hour later a red alert was posted.
Out the front door I went to have a look at the night sky. The western horizon was still fading. Not dark but getting darker by the minute. I could see the stars twinkling. Maybe a good night to try my hand at the northern lights again? I hemmed and hawed for a few moments. Would it be worth a trip? Of course.
I grabbed my camera equipment but not before changing the settings on my camera body for the night sky.
I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go thinking that this place had the makings of an interesting shot. Twenty five minutes later I was there. Getting out of the car I could see the clouds were filling the sky. WTF? How could that have happened so quickly? The forecast was for mostly clear night skies. In the Rav I went and turned towards home watching for stars and hoping that my luck might change. Instead of taking the highway back I decided to travel on the back roads. There were a few low spots that maybe, just maybe would have fog in them and who knows what that might look like. Ten minutes later and my camera was out of the vehicle and pointed down a country road. And guess what? The sky had cleared.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so tired. It was 11:30 the night was young. Ten minutes later found me driving through a wall of thick fog. Once I got to the edge of it I pulled over. Looking towards Edmonton the glow from the city was visible. The moon was lighting up the fog in the horse pasture to my right and the sky above that was twinkling with stars.
Here’s where the learning to walk before you run part comes in. I have only been out maybe a half a dozen times trying to photograph either the aurora or the milky way. It’s been a learning experience. My first photos were not very sharp. It was hard to focus in the dark. It’s hard enough to even frame a shot let alone focus on something. I had learned to focus on infinity during the daytime and to mark the infinity spot on the lens barrel. Focus is easy now. I turn on my headlamp and see that the two marks are aligned. Focus guaranteed!
The next was exposure. I had read many different articles for suggested exposures. For northern lights and the lens I use I could keep my exposures between one and fifteen seconds. That’s another thing that I learned. Bracket! The aperture or f stop is kept the same. With this lens wide open that is f1.8 F2 allows me a little latitude for focus or depth of field. I know that to change the shutter speed all that needs to be done is to roll the button left or right. Left means a longer exposure right the opposite. No fumbling in the dark looking for settings.
With the cameras preview it’s easy to see if more or less exposure is needed and if the composition needs changing.
I continued to shoot almost completely forgetting about the technical aspect of photography. Now it was just a matter of pointing the camera to something that looked interesting and firing off two or three bracketed frames.
I had a great time. The aurora never really were directly overhead, which I would have like, they were more to the northern horizon. Maybe next time will be better.
Now even more learning to walk before running. Processing night time images.
Quite a while ago I realized the importance of shooting RAW images and just as importantly having a quality RAW converter. For years I converted my images in Photoshop thinking that it was good. It is but it falls short on difficult images.
With a good RAW converter images at 1600 ISO are noiseless and sharp. Noise reduction seems better done from the RAW image and not a TIFF. When the image is saved to TIFF it is usually then converted to LAB color space where fine corrections are done for noise. Working in LAB you can work in the LIGHTNESS channel which contains only black and white info. There is a VISIBLE difference doing this. The same with doing contrast and brightness corrections.
Color corrections are done again in LAB color space and than converted to RGB where really fine tweaking can be done.
With a state of the art digital camera and a quality RAW converter you can shoot at 6400 ISO and still have very good, not perfect but very good images.
Knowing the little that I now do is allowing me to be forget about the technical stuff when shooting and instead, LOOK, VISUALIZE and REACT.
The creative process is more about going with the flow of the light and shapes.
There is so much more to learn and so many new things to photograph in ways that I haven’t yet dreamed of. This applies to all kinds of photography. You never want to get hung up on the technical stuff. That becomes an obstacle in the way of you visualizing what is around you.